Naval Aviation Comes of Age at the Battle of Midway
During World War Two, air power played a more significant role than in any previous conflict. The RAF surviving the Battle of Britain in the late summer of 1940, for example, contributed directly to preventing a planned German invasion of Britain. But it was in the realm of naval aviation that aircraft played an unexpectedly crucial role.
Before the war, many naval experts believed that big guns on capital ships, which had always been the deciding factor in any previous naval battle, would continue to be dominant. Instead, naval aviation and in particular, strike aircraft operating from aircraft carriers, became the single most significant element in a number of important actions.
Torpedo bombers of the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy conducted a devastating strike against the Italian fleet in the harbour at Taranto in November 1940 and were involved again in the destruction of the German Battleship Bismarck in May 1941. On 7th December 1941, aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) carried out a lethal surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
It was becoming clear even to the most ardent supporter of large battleships that their time had passed and that in future, success in naval engagements would be won by the side that was able to most effectively deploy naval aviation assets. Then on 4th June 1942, three squadrons of American dive bombers changed the course of the war in the Pacific completely and irrevocably in the space of a little over ten minutes. This is their story.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new phase of the Second World War and a period of around six months when the Japanese Empire seemed to be unstoppable.
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By June 1942, Japanese forces had successfully invaded and occupied Guam, Wake Island, Hong Kong, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), Malaya (present-day Malaysia), Singapore and Burma (present-day Myanmar). Japanese forces also invaded Thailand, which quickly capitulated and joined the Japanese side.
Occupation of these territories gave Japan access to vital natural resources needed to support the war effort including oil, rubber and tin. After considering (and rejecting) a plan to invade Australia, Japan instead planned to switch to a defensive strategy, with a strongly guarded perimeter protecting their new possessions.
Despite six months of combat, the IJN was still largely intact and Japanese naval aviation was amongst the best in the world. Japanese aviators were well-trained and experienced and the aircraft they flew were outstanding. The Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter had immense range and was one of the best fighters available anywhere in the world. The Nakajima B5N “Kate” torpedo bomber and the Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber had both proven to be lethally effective.
The importance of naval aviation was reinforced during the first large-scale action between the IJN and the US Navy in May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea. Neither fleet sighted the other and none of the big gun ships were able to play a role.
Instead, this battle was fought exclusively by naval aircraft on both sides. The outcome was inconclusive, with the Japanese light aircraft carrier Shōhō sunk and the fleet carrier Shōkaku damaged.
The US fleet carrier Lexington was so badly damaged that it had to be scuttled and the Yorktown was also damaged, though not seriously. The most important outcome of this battle was the understanding on both sides that naval aviation had become the critical factor in the Pacific.
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet understood that, if Japan was to remain in control of the Pacific, it had to destroy the existing US aircraft carriers. Yamamoto developed a plan for a Japanese attack on Midway Island, a tiny atoll 1,300 miles northwest of the Hawaiian islands.
Midway itself wasn’t particularly important strategically – it was chosen because it was beyond the range of US land-based bombers in Hawaii but close enough that Yamamoto believed that the US Fleet would be forced to try to prevent the invasion.
They would then be ambushed by a massive Japanese naval force of over 100 warships including battleships and four fleet aircraft carriers.
What Admiral Yamamoto could not have guessed was that US cryptographers had broken Japanese naval codes. US commanders were aware not just of the plan to mount an attack on Midway Island, but of the date on which it was expected to take place and the Japanese order of battle.
With this knowledge, the US Navy could turn the tables on the IJN and ambush the force that had expected to ambush the US fleet.
June 4th 1942 – The Battle of Midway
At around 04:30 on 4th June, the first wave of over 100 Japanese fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers were launched from the fleet carriers to attack Midway Island.
This attack failed to destroy the airfield on the island, though most of the defending USMC fighters were shot down. When the strike aircraft returned to the carriers, they advised that a second strike would be required before it was safe for invasion forces to land.
At 07:15, the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, ordered that the reserve strike aircraft should be re-armed with high-explosive, contact-fused bombs.
These were ideal for attacking land targets, but ineffective against enemy warships. That didn’t seem to matter unduly because, at that moment, the Japanese had no idea that a large US fleet was approaching.
The US fleet comprised two task forces: Task Force 16, including the fleet aircraft carriers Enterprise and the Hornet under the command of Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance and Task Force 17, including the carrier Yorktown (newly repaired after the damage suffered at the Battle of the Coral Sea) under the command of Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher.
The US fleet included F4F Wildcat fighters, Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers. At 07:00, Rear Admiral Spruance made a bold decision. From monitoring radio traffic, he was aware that Japanese carriers had launched a strike against Midway Island and he believed (correctly) that the Japanese were preparing for a second strike.
He decided to launch an attack on the Japanese carriers with aircraft from the Enterprise and Hornet, though the range meant that many of the US aircraft wouldn’t make it back to the carrier. Strike aircraft from the Yorktown were launched soon after.
The first attack by US naval aviation on the Japanese carriers took place at around 09:25 when 15 Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers from the Hornet made an attack on the carrier Sōryū. This was a disaster. Every TBD was shot down and only one crew member survived.
To drop a torpedo effectively, the Devastator had to fly at no more than 115 knots, at low level and in a straight line. This left them vulnerable to attack by fighters and anti-aircraft guns. Even worse, the Mark 13 torpedo had notable faults that made many miss their targets or fail to explode. Not a single torpedo launched by the first wave of Devastators hit any Japanese ships.
At around 10:20, Devastators from Enterprise and Yorktown made a second attack on the Japanese carriers. This was no more successful than the first attack. No torpedo struck any Japanese ship and only six Devastators survived to return to the US carriers.
At this point, the Japanese were clearly winning the Battle of Midway. Repeated attacks by US land and carrier-based aircraft had failed to damage a single Japanese ship. Virtually the entire US torpedo bomber force had been wiped out while the Japanese naval aviation force was virtually intact.
Then, at 10:22, just two minutes after the last torpedo attack had been successfully repulsed, everything began to change.
By chance, just as the Japanese fighters had been drawn down to low level to deal with the attack of the Devastators, three squadrons of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers, two from Enterprise and one from Yorktown, appeared in the sky above the Japanese fleet. Without fighters to contend with, they immediately began attacks on the Japanese carriers.
With aircraft still being refuelled and re-armed ranged on their wooden flight decks (Admiral Nagumo had been forced to order strike aircraft to be re-armed again, with bombs suitable for attacks on warships when he finally learned of the presence of the US fleet), the impact on the Japanese carriers was devastating.
The Kaga was hit first at around 10:25, by either three or five bombs dropped by aircraft from the Enterprise. Within minutes, the Japanese carrier was ablaze. Next was the Akagi, also attacked by SBDs from the Enterprise.
Only one bomb hit this ship directly, but it penetrated the flight deck and exploded in the hanger beneath amongst aircraft being refuelled and re-armed. A huge fire began immediately.
A second bomb exploded just alongside the ship’s stern, damaging the rudder and bending the rear part of the flight deck upwards. Moments later, SBDs from the Yorktown attacked the Sōryū, hitting it with at least three bombs and causing ammunition and bombs stacked on the flight deck to explode. By 10:35, the US dive bomber attack was over.
Within five minutes of the attack, the Sōryū and Kaga were burning fiercely, with uncontrolled fires from bow to stern. The Akagi, Admiral Nagumo’s flagship, hit by only a single bomb, was affected by a raging fire on the hanger deck. Initially, it was hoped that the ship could be saved, but the fire spread and soon, it too was lost.
This wasn’t the end of the Battle of Midway. A Japanese strike force launched from the last remaining carrier, the Hiryū, located the Yorktown and hit her with at least two torpedoes. The Yorktown was mortally damaged and later sunk. In the late afternoon of June 4th, SBDs from Enterprise found the Hiryū, attacked and left the Japanese carrier ablaze.
By any reasonable estimation, at 10:25 on 4th June 1942, the United States was losing the war in the Pacific. Up to that point, it had not defeated the Japanese in a major battle, it had lost several capital ships at Pearl Harbor and it had been forced to concede territory in the Philippines and elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the situation had changed completely. The Japanese had lost three fleet aircraft carriers.
Even worse it had lost not just large numbers of combat aircraft but some of its most experienced naval aviators as well as trained ground crew and mechanics. The loss of the Hiryū later the same day turned a serious situation into a disaster.
After Midway, the IJN was left with just two modern fleet carriers, the Shōkaku and Zuikaku. In the time that it took the Japanese to build three replacement carriers, more than 20 new Fleet and Light carriers had joined the US Navy in addition to a number of Escort Carriers.
To replace the personnel lost at Midway, the Japanese were forced to accelerate their pilot training program, which saw relatively inexperienced pilots rushed into battle. Soon, even the highly effective Zero fighter was being shot down in large numbers by better-trained US pilots.
The War in the Pacific would continue for three more bitter and bloody years before it finally ended in August 1945. But naval air power had proved its worth and the balance of power was shifted completely and irrevocably in the space of just ten minutes on the morning of 4th June 1942.
Up to that moment, the Japanese had not lost an important engagement. After that, they never won a single major naval battle against the US Navy. If anyone still doubted the importance of naval aviation, that also changed on that clear, June morning. Carrier Task Groups would become the most important and powerful naval assets in the Pacific and elsewhere.
Virtually overnight, battleships became redundant and were relegated to protecting Carrier Task Groups or used for shore bombardment, a situation that continues to the present day.
The Douglas TBD Devastator was withdrawn from front-line service by the US Navy after catastrophic losses at the Battle of Midway and it was soon replaced by the much more capable Grumman TBF/TBM Avenger.
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The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers that had proved so lethally effective at Midway would go on to sink more than 300,000 tons of Japanese shipping in the Pacific as well as more aircraft carriers and other warships. The SBD would remain the USN’s main bomber until mid-1944 when it was largely replaced by the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The F4F Wildcat fighter remained in service for another year, before being replaced by the F6F Hellcat.